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Election 2024: Five takeaways from the BBC Question Time leaders special

Here are our top takeaways from Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak being grilled on BBC Question Time. Photo: PA
Here are our top takeaways from Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak being grilled on BBC Question Time. Photo: PA

In the latest in the pre-election series of party leaders TV debates, Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak were grilled by the BBC Question Time audience this evening.

The Labour and Conservative party leaders appeared alongside Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader John Swinney, with just two weeks to go before polling day on July 4.

And the BBC audience put them through their paces in a two-hour long programme, presented by Fiona Bruce, with each leader appearing solo for half an hour.

We watched the broadcast live so you didn’t have to – and here are the top five things we took away from tonight’s Question Time.

‘Not a bottomless pit’

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey got off to a somewhat rocky start, as he was forced to deny that his party would bankrupt the country.

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Sir Ed was asked whether his pledges would bankrupt the UK, and insisted: “The answer’s no. We put forward a very detailed, costed manifesto and it’s got a big health and social care package at the centre.”

Davey agreed with the audience questioner that “it isn’t a bottomless pit”, as he accused other parties of “not putting the money in we need to rescue our public services”.

And we went on to face questions over the Lib Dems breaking promises on tuition fees, and criticism for his role as Post Office minister amid the Horizon scandal, to which he said he was “sorry for not seeing through those lies”.

Hint the SNP backs Labour?

SNP leader John Swinney appeared to suggest he would prefer Sir Keir Starmer in No10 over Rishi Sunak.

Asked by a Question Time audience member which of the two main party leaders he would prefer to see as Prime Minister, Swinney replied: “You are asking me a very controversial question.”

He continued: “I think the Conservative government has been a total disaster and a calamity. So it cannot be out of office quick enough in my view.”

But Swinney also stressed while he thought it was “an absolute certainty” that Labour would enter government, he urged Scottish voters to “recognise the importance of having strong SNP voices in the House of Commons”.

Sir Keir stumbles over Corbyn

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was pressed over his previous support for his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and his 2019 manifesto.

Starmer once said Corbyn would make a “great Prime Minister”, but recently criticised the Tories’ policy slate as “Jeremy Corbyn-like… anything you want… nothing is costed”.

He told the Question Time audience that “in 2019 I campaigned for the Labour Party as I’ve always campaigned for the Labour Party” and added that it was clear voters “thought it was too much and they wanted to see something which was fully costed and fully funded”.

Presenter Fiona Bruce then challenged Starmer over his remark that Corbyn would make a great prime minister. He did not say whether he meant it; claimed he “didn’t think we were going to win the election” and indicated Corbyn could have been better than Boris Johnson.

PM ‘incredibly angry’ over betting allegations

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced his first set of questions over the election betting scandal, and said he was “incredibly angry” to learn of what he said was a “really serious matter”.

Sunak also told the BBC audience that anyone who is found to have broken the rules will be “booted out of the Conservative Party”.

He said: “These investigations are ongoing, they are widely confidential, one of them is a criminal investigation that’s being conducted by the police.”

He added: “What I can tell you is if anyone is found to have broken the rules, not only should they face the full consequences of the law, I will make sure that they are booted out of the Conservative Party.”

National Service ‘access to finance’?

Questioned on how he would ensure young people took part in his proposed National Service scheme, Sunak pointed to “access to finance” among other sanction examples.

Asked if this meant taking away people’s bank cards, he laughed, and said: “There’s lot of different models around Europe.”

The Prime Minister also batted away criticism from a former chief of the naval staff and Labour peer, who is reported to have called the policy “bonkers”, he responded: “Well, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start politicising the armed forces during an election campaign.”

Sunak insisted the military route was optional, despite the proposed national service scheme – which the Conservatives said they would bring in if re-elected – being compulsory.